CLEVELAND, Ohio — Shortly after their record-setting performance, the Cleveland Cavaliers were struggling to find the right superlatives to describe their evening.
They had just hit 25 three-pointers, an NBA record. James expounded on the accomplishment before pausing a moment to let the number really sink in.
“It’s truly special,” he said.
Ironically enough, that was the same term Kyrie Irving used.
“It’s just special,” he said. “Every night we won’t have that type of performance, but you just have to live in the moment and really, truly appreciate what happened tonight. Everyone was making shots. Started with Swish (J.R. Smith) and went to Bron and guys really in position to be ready to shoot. Starts with our preparation. We don’t want to take it for granted. This is where it stays. Twenty five threes, an NBA record. That’s it.”
That was just one of the many accomplishments during Wednesday’s 123-98 win against the Atlanta Hawks. The Cavs also broke the league record for most threes in a half, draining 18 in the first 24 minutes. Team records fell too — most points in a half (74) and three-pointers in a quarter (eight).
The Cavs will hold this night in high regard, making a point to celebrate any historical accomplishment, and they were admittedly hunting the record in the fourth quarter.
However, the most important number was two, as in the number of wins thus far in the Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup against the defenseless Hawks.
Here are five observations:
Hawks left speechless – The Hawks were buried underneath an avalanche of three-pointers on Wednesday, a blast started by Smith.
The three-point specialist missed his first. Kevin Love missed the second attempt. Then it started.
At the 8:59 mark of the first quarter, Smith swished one directly in front of Kyle Korver. Then came Love. Then Irving. Then James. It didn’t stop.
“What happened? Not a clue,” Paul Millsap told reporters. “A lot of threes. I don’t know what else to say. I am still speechless…I’m a man who believes anything is possible. And the impossible happened tonight.”
In all, 10 players made at least one three-pointer. Only two players on the active roster didn’t take a shot from beyond the arc — Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson.
Smith led the way with seven, six of which came in the first half when the Cavs built a 38-point lead.
“J.R., he’s the only one on the team that has the ultra-green light,” James said. “It’s like fluorescent. Coach says, ‘Hey, J.R., shoot! Shoot, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.’ I just think it puts him at ease, when he’s able just to know, ‘Hey, I’m open’ — or sometimes when guys are even not close enough — just to let it go.”
Of Smith’s seven triples, six were assisted, showing that his teammates were looking for him, giving him confidence throughout.
“Just a special talent,” Irving said of Smith. “Just think back to, can’t remember which game it was in Atlanta where he hits eight threes, everyone in the Atlanta crowd is wondering how he’s doing it. We’ve seen it before and we just want to continue to have him play his game and have that mentality that when he’s open to shoot it and we trust him with it.”
While Smith was dancing on the court, celebrating his big night, his teammates were doing the same on the bench.
The team — and the crowd — feeds off his long-range shooting.
“When J.R.’s making shots, it’s great to see,” head coach Tyronn Lue said. “He has a beautiful shot, and when he’s making shots, it becomes contagious. When he’s making shots like that, it’s hard for us to get beat.”
Energetic ball – When asked to explain 25 made threes in a game, Lue and James — again showing they are on the same page — pointed to one primary helper.
“It’s great ball movement, player movement, something we’ve been stressing all year,” James said. “The ball finds energy. And guys are flying around on offense. We’ve got some guys who can make some shots from the perimeter, so that’s a byproduct of it.”
Irving and James attacked the defense off the dribble, forced the Hawks to collapse inside and it created plenty of open looks throughout, especially in the first half.
Kudos to the Cavs. They buried their open looks, something Atlanta hasn’t done in the first two games. However, it’s worth pointing out that of the 27 attempted triples in the first half, 16 were uncontested, according to ESPN stats and info. The Cavs were 12-of-16 on those looks.
“It was beautiful to watch,” Lue said. “I thought we made the right play. We made the right pass. The ball moved, and guys got their shots.”
The Cavs assisted on 20 of the 25 made three-pointers.
“I just think it’s the trust,” Lue said. “I think we’re trusting each other now. We’re trusting each other on the defensive end. We’re trusting each other on the offensive end. If they’re open, that guy that’s open is going to get the basketball. It’s fun to play that way. Continue to keep sharing the ball. Guys have more fun playing like that.”
Practice makes near perfect – Smith’s seven three-point bombs came in a variety of ways.
“Obviously, this guy, you give him the ball anywhere he can shoot it,” James said, motioning to Smith who was seated to his right. “All shapes and sizes, he doesn’t have to be balanced, things of that nature.”
On many of them, Smith wasn’t.
He hit one off one foot, one on a 180-degree turn where he barely looked at the basket and another as he was falling backwards.
“Honestly, you can,” Smith said when asked if he practices crazy shots. “We run our side out of bounds, baseline out of bounds and I take the same shot every day coming off them as the one I made today. Guys are always looking at me like, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ This is my shot. Regardless of how funny it may look to you, I feel as if I can make it and when I get that opportunity, I’m going to shoot it and I’m going to make it.”
He even made one off the dribble — shaking Korver — and that’s not usually his forte.
So can the Cavs keep up this shooting pace, now making 16.2 threes in six playoff games?
“I hope so. I hope we can continue to do that,” Lue said. “We’re making the right play. Kevin posts up, they double team, we make the right pass out of the double team, swing, swing, shot. Or they double-team LeBron in the post. Or we drive the basketball in transition, LeBron’s driving seams, Kyrie’s driving seams and guys are open. If we’re open we want to shoot those shots.”
Early offense – Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, with his voice nearly gone (probably from screaming at his team), sat at the podium, giving Cleveland plenty of credit for their incredible shooting night.
But he also put plenty of blame on his own guys.
“I think in transition, we’re not doing a good enough job,” Budenholzer said. “I think we probably need greater urgency. We need greater understanding getting to all their shooters. I think it starts there.”
For the Cavs, that began on the defensive end, keeping the Hawks under 100 points for the second straight game and holding them to 30-of-71 (42.3 percent) from the field.
“Huge,” Love said of the effort on that end. “That helps our pace just securing the ball on the defensive end after one shot and getting out on the break.”
Irving and James spearheaded the transition game.
“Our pace was amazing tonight,” Irving said. “It started on the defensive end and when guys are being special tonight like LeBron and J.R., just get out of the way and watch. Try to join the action a little bit and get some easy ones if you can. Everyone was really aggressive tonight and our decision making was on key.”
Some teams push the pace, looking to get all the way to the basket for layups. The Cavs looked like they were using transition opportunities to hunt threes while the defense was still scrambling.
“We’re searching for whatever is there,” Irving said. “Obviously it’s tailor-fitted to whoever is on the floor at that time and Bron is going downhill and he’s going one-on-one and sometimes guys are stopping at the three-point line. Miss or make it’s just, we want quality shots and we trust the pass and trust one another with shooting shots.”
Smith channeling Deion Sanders – Lost in the hoopla of the three-point barrage was the Cavs’ quality defense.
Smith was at the center of that effort as well.
“I think what’s getting overlooked in this whole thing is the other side of the floor with J.R.,” James said. “Obviously his reputation is shooting threes and making threes and I know that he’s had multiple games with eight made threes, but people are overlooking what he’s done defensively since he got here.”
Lue isn’t, praising Smith for the job he’s done against Korver.
In two games, the top name on Cleveland’s scouting report has averaged four shots per game, half of what he hoisted during the regular season. He’s scored just 10 total points.
“We were talking together about it in the locker room, we got to be like Deion Sanders used to be — just shut off this side of the field and make him go to the other side,” Smith, a Dallas Cowboys fan said. “That’s the way I look at it. Lock in, chase him off as many screens as it takes and if he does get the ball, be prepared for him to shoot and just contest it as best as you can.
“I mean, with a guy like that who shoots it as well as he did, I mean he got one three in transition. He was so deep and I did get lax for a second but there’s not no time to sit there and say, ‘OK, I made a shot and now I got to go look to him.’ We got to be on him at all times.”
Korver wasn’t the only one held in check on Wednesday. Jeff Teague went 3-of-10 (30 percent),making him 5-of-19 (26.3 percent) in the first two games. Kent Bazemore was a dreadful 1-of-7 (14.2 percent) from the field. Dennis Schroder, the team’s leading scorer in Game 1 with 27 points, went 2-of-5 (40 percent) from the field.
“I just thought our defense was great,” Lue said. “That was our best defensive effort in a long time.”